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Sheep Experiment

Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg

Sheep Experiment

[4 minutes  46 seconds]

I had the opportunity, and I was very fortunate to have a lot of time, to discuss with Rabbi Auerbach his position on the issue of brain death. Initially, he felt that because currently a pregnant woman who dies and is diagnosed as brain dead on a respirator can be delivered and a fetus that will come out of her will survive. This seemed to him contradictory to a Talmudic discussion in Tractate Erchim where the Talmud says specifically that a dying woman, when she is pregnant, her fetus always dies before her. And since here we see that the fetus can survive after her, it must mean that she wasn’t dead, because if she were dead, how could he stay alive? And after a long debate regarding various aspects of this particular sugya, the question was, came down into,  the following: Is there a real difference between a natural death of a pregnant woman in the Talmudic times where, gradually, she is dying, her blood pressure is dropping, her pulse is dropping, her oxygen is going down; obviously the fetus, who is more vulnerable than an adult person, will not survive –as opposed to a current situation when brain death is diagnosed when the pregnant woman is on a respirator –with medications that keep her blood pressure and her pulse in a normal way. In this particular situation, the fetus receives all that he needs, so that even though we may regard the mother as dead, he may survive because he is receiving what he needs in order to survive.

In order to verify that indeed there is such a difference, Rav Auerbach proposed an experiment, a medical experiment on a pregnant sheep where the mother sheep was decapitated in a very humanistic and painless way with anesthesia, but in a way that brought her into the halachic definition of being dead based on a mishna in Ohalot which says that if he is decapitated he is considered to be dead although he is still moving and he is not still completely.

So, if this mother pregnant sheep is decapitated, she is by all definitions a dead mother. Yet, we were able to deliver her calf who survived (and I think today he is still alive today somewhere, but certainly was alive for a good few years) despite the fact that he came out of a mother that was dead by all criteria. Therefore, Rabbi Auerbach accepted that a person can be dead by brainstem definition although a pregnant woman currently can be delivered and have a vital fetus.

However, he equated the situation of brain death to a decapitation situation, where the whole brain is verified as being dead. So that he did not think that it is enough that there is an irreversible cessation of breathing, and of those functions of the brain only, but rather you need to verify that each and every cell in that brain is dead. This brought him to a new definition of a whole brain dead person which he called it “Safek met, safek goses” – – “doubtfully dead, doubtfully goses” – – a situation where you cannot remove organs until you verify that he is indeed dead.

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